Literary Shelf

Elizabethan Sonnets and Hindi Film-songs

Comparing Elizabethan sonnets with Hindi film-songs! The very idea seems absurd, far-fetched. Perhaps even sacrilegious to devotees of Shakespear, Sidney and Spenser. But, come to think of it, it is not really all that ridiculous: both have a common ancestry in Persian poetry which is brought out by the remarkably similar conventions both follow. And I think it is high time that our Hindi film-song writers become aware and are legitimately proud of their august connections with the Elizabethan poets. On the one hand there is the Saracen courtly-love convention filtering through to England via Spain and Italy. On the other there is the love poetry of Firdausi and Utbi reaching the Hindi silver screen via Ghalib and company.

For instance, take a look at the basic “conceit” of love regarded as a compulsory experience in life, stressed as the central and the most important of all experience, which we find in every Elizabethan sonneteer. Similarly, in Hindi film-songs we find:

Kisi na kisi se, kabhi na kabhi,
Kahin na kahin dil lagana padega!

Love is seen as both consolatory and painful in both. In Shakespeare, the memory of the faithless fair youth is simultaneously painful and pleasurable. So, too, the love in Hindi songs consoles himself with the thought that, though rejected by all, someday, somewhere, someone will definitely make him her own:

Kabhi na kabhi, kahin nas kahin,
Kok na koi to ayega, apna hamen banayega…

Again, the situation around which both these literary and cinematic genres are built is that of the disdainful mistress and her persistent-despairing lover who goes no wooing her in the same hackneyed terms, sounding for all the world like a cracked gramophone record. However, whereas the Elizabethan mistress had to be inexorably unyielding so that the lover could continue to worship her on a pedestal as the embodiment of chastity and all other womanly qualities, all the while moaning and groaning endlessly, the position is singularly different with the Hindi film lover. We Indians are probably more earthy in our desires and optimistic by nature (no tragedies are forbidden by the Natyashastra). Consequently the lover is injected with an irritatingly smug I-know-you-will-give-in attitude. He tells his beloved that whatever names she might call him and however much she might pretend to detest him, he is in love with her, and that is that! She can like it or lump it:

Budtameez kaho, ya kaho janwar,
Mera dil tere dil pe phida ho gaya!

Since, therefore, the lover cannot moan against his beloved’s inexorable chastity, he has to direct his plaint against the cruel world which hinders their union. It is the eternal Romeo-Juliet, Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjah, Shirin-Farhad them common to both East and West, namely: zamana dushman hai!

Then there is the common concept about the lover trying to paint the portrait of his beloved and miserably failing to incorporate the whole of her being in the picture. Interestingly enough, in Sanskrit dramas, the lovers always succeed remarkably well in sketching lifelike pictures of each other and are all the time swooning at the sight of the portraits (as in Ratnavali for instance). It is clear, therefore, that the failure of the Hindi film lover in following suit is the result of a foreign influence, namely Shakespeare who in despair writes:

“And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.”

So too the Hindi film song goes, “Jo baat tujhme hai, teri tasveer mein nahin,” or, “Tasveer banata hoon, tasveer nahin banti,” or “Tasveer teri dil mera bahela na sakegi, woh teri tarah mujhse to sharma na sakegi…” and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

Out of all this rises the oft-repeated moanings about insomnia and protestations about the constancy and eternal nature of the male lover’s love. Examples of these are too well known in Elizabethan sonnets to need quoting, but here is what the Hindi film song says:


Yaad me teri jag jag ke hum, raat bhar karvaten badltae hain.
Aaj to tere bina neend nahin aayegi.

Undying Love:

Na ye chaand hoga, na tare rahenge,
Magar hum hamesha tumhare rahenge
Jahan bhi rahen hum tumhare rahenge.

We have only to compare the last example with Sylvester’s sonnet, “Were I as base as the lowly plain” to see the remarkable and astonishing similarity of sentiment and imagery:-

“Wheresoe’er you were, with you my love should go…
Till heaven waxed blind, and till the world were done.”

Actually, even in the conceit of the lover as the lute and the beloved as the music has its exact parallel in the Hindi saaz ho tum, aawaaz hoon main.

Again, in both cases we find the same peculiar note of carefree, happy-go-lucky wooing of the angry mistress:

“And wilt thou leave me thus, say nay, say nay!”

Dekho rootha na karo, baat nazaron ki sono.
Pyaar aankhon se jataya, to bura maan gaye.

The most striking similarity, however, is seen in the terms in which is beloved is described. Putting Lodge’s “Rosaline” and songs like “Ye chaand sa roshan chehera” or “Ab kya misaal doon main tumhare shabab ki” side by side we find the following commonalities:

  1. Her hair is golden—so incongruous with our black-haired beauties, but still an idea stoutly maintained by our lyricists.
  2. Her eyes are blue like stars or sapphires—again so absurd in the case of Indian ladies.

These very incongruities are proof of the strength of the common poetic tradition binding these two apparently dissimilar genres together. Otherwise why should Urdu poets think of golden-haired and blue-eyed beauties in a land of dark-haired and anything but blue-eyed women?

  1. Her face is like the moon, or fair as snow. Her lips are like budding roses. Her cheeks are pink like the first rays of the dawn. Her smile is like a flash of lighting. Her body is alabaster or marble white like the Taj Mahal.

To these we must add a few variations which we find in Ben Jonson’s “Drink to me with thine eyes.” These are the ideas of the eyes as wine-cups and of the lips as containing nectar:

Is musth nazr se pilaye jaa.
Aankhen hain jaise maiye ke pyale bhare huye.
Rase se bhari hothon
Lal hothon ke pyale.

However, the unique contribution of Hindi film songs lies in the sense of thepseudo-fear of falling in love. Repeatedly, in song after song, the lover murmurs, “I hpe this is not love,” (kahin ye pyaar hi na ho) or “You are so lovely, I pray that I may not fall in love with you,” (kahin aaj kisi se mohabbat nah o jaaye). This is said generally after considerable euphoria concerning the beloved’s “zulfein” (love-locks) and all the rest of the paraphernalia described above. It is all mere sentimental posturing, of course. He is hoping, all the time, that she will reciprocate his infatuation, thinking that he does not care! The height of naivete really, but a new element, not found in Elizabethan sonnets, is introduced all the same. Probably it is a prototype of the protest against the tyranny of love which finds expression so often in the sonneteers’ rantings against the mischief of blind Cupid.

Ultimately, just as in Sidney, Shakespeare and Donne we find the growth of an anti-convention ridiculing the fulsome praise and sentimental idealization of the beloved (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun: etc.), similarly we come across such a tendency stirring up in Hindi film songs as well. The development of this strain, however, is probably foredoomed since no Hindi film heroine will be able to survive such an onslaught. One of the very rare instances of this debunking is this song which is supposed to be sung in a night-club (you cannot make fun of the real heroine, but cabaret dancers are fair game):

Hasino se to bus sahib salamat door ki acchi,
Na inki dosti acchi, na inki dushmani acchi.
Peele cheheren hain magar, unpe lipstick powder,
Cartoonon ki tarah aa rahein hain ye nazar…

(It is best to salute the pretty one from afar; neither their friendship nor their enmity is desirable; though pale as yellow, they smear themselves with lipstick and power, looking like cartoons.)

In its sweeping generalization and condemnation (he refers to all women, not just to a particular one) this song goes far beyond anything the |Elizabethans ever said and it is hardly very flattering to the fair sex.

If, therefore, we try to arrive at some sort of a comparative view of both conventions, we find that the similarities are too marked to be ignored. Even the anti-convention is much the same. Unfortunately, lately the quality of Hindi songs has degenerated alarmingly. This is, indeed, natural when given as rigid a convention as it has. It was the same case with the Elizabethan sonnet which perforce had to die out after only two decades as the public was sick of hearing the same changes being rung on the same theme within the same limitations of the same old conventions. Our public is still lapping up the stuff mainly because of the saving grace of the music which has, consequently, acquired far greater importance than the lyric itself, which cannot do without zulfein, dil, mohabbat, and tere-mere. One wonders where this is leading. It is high time our Hindi film lyricists began plagiarising wholesale from their cousins, the Elizabethan sonneteers, or their like!

A slightly different version came out in the Sunday Hindusthan Standard dated 16 March 1969


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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